Community forum draws crowd of 200
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | June 27,2013
SPRINGFIELD — Close to 200 people turned out Wednesday night to collect green bracelets that read “Not in Our Town — Springfield,” and show their concern and raise questions about the plague of heroin in their community.
The community meeting was organized after last week’s drug sweep by the Vermont Drug Task Force, that resulted in the arrest of 33 dealers in the Springfield area, 22 of them Springfield residents.
Vermont State Police Lt. Matthew Birmingham, commander of the Vermont Drug Task Force, said there had been a dramatic increase in heroin in Vermont, and that increase hit Springfield about six to eight months ago.
Birmingham said the task force had arrested 33 of the 36 dealers they were seeking June 19, but he said the task force was by no means walking away after the high-visibility arrests.
“We are not, by any means, done in Springfield,” said Birmingham, who, along with others who spoke said Springfield was not unique in having a serious drug problem in Vermont.
Birmingham said the key to getting drug dealers out of Springfield and the rest of the state was to attack demand.
“Vermont has an opiate problem, whether it’s Bennington, Rutland, St. Albans or Springfield,” he said. “Heroin and prescription drugs are our No. 1 priority.”
Birmingham downplayed any role of organized gangs in the Springfield drug scene, saying dealers often claim the gang connection to appear tougher than they are.
The audience included young people, parents with young children, white-haired business owners, and many of the town’s elected leaders, as well as social service agencies.
Wendi L. Germain, executive director of the Springfield Justice Center, said town leaders started immediately last week to address the issues raised by the drug sweep and to organize Wednesday’s session, which was slated to conclude with “a walk together in the community” to show support.
Germain said the community had to work together to address the problems.
Trevor Banbridge, another member of the ad hoc group, said that “Not in Our Town” was “both an affirmation and also a lament, a plea of sadness.”
The alleged drug dealers arrested last week in Springfield, he said, are people with children and parents.
Vermont State Police Lt. Timothy Oliver said the best educators for the children in the community were their parents and other family members.
Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston said he had grown up in Springfield and witnessed the loss of pride in the community as the town hit hard times economically. Police don’t have all the answers, he said.
Sometimes painting a dilapidated house and mowing an unkempt lawn is a powerful tool to tell drug dealers they are not going to find a home here, the chief said.
Several people questioned why the town has refused to fund the school resource officer at Springfield High School, as well as not funding a local school drug counselor.
Kristi Morris, chairman of the Springfield Select Board, said the town had been actively working on several strategies to address the drug and crime problem ever since last July’s drug-related shooting downtown.
Morris said the town was putting pressure on the owners of dilapidated buildings through the town’s ordinance, and had also passed a new rental registry ordinance that would give the town more tools to put pressure on landlords and drug-dealing tenants.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” said Morris. “It has to be a community effort. The users enable the drug problem to flourish.”